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Clever new ‘Scream’ finds the perfect balance of the vintage and the fresh

Franchise revival brings back original Ghostface Busters Sidney, Gale and Dewey while introducing new generation of teens and having fun with horror film tropes.

Jenna Ortega (“You”) has the honor of receiving the menacing phone call that opens the new “Scream.”
Paramount Pictures

“Do you have a gun?”

“I’m Sidney Prescott, of course I have a gun.” – Exchange between David Arquette’s Dewey and Neve Campbell’s Sidney in “Scream.”

As evidenced by such recent films as “Halloween Kills” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “The Matrix Resurrections,” it can be a tricky thing to stage a reunion of beloved characters from a franchise that debuted long ago, so we hoped for the best but feared for mediocrity when it was announced the first “Scream” film in a decade would feature the return of the original Ghostface Busters: Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers and David Arquette’s Dwight “Dewey” Riley.

Would they be awkwardly shoehorned into a next-generation story, a la “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”? Would they be front and center in a new tale that undercut the impact of the original films, as was the case with “The Matrix Resurrections”?

Good news: Pitfalls avoided. Thanks to the razor-sharp screenplay by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick and the stylish and Wes Craven-influenced direction by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and the ease with which Campbell, Cox and Arquette return to their roles, the new “Scream” stabs and jabs at our memories of the original and creates some bloody fresh twists of its own. The franchise springs back to life — and death — by bringing back Sidney, Gale and Dewey in a clever and organic way, while also introducing some terrific new characters and always, always keeping us in the loop with a bounty of funny and knowing references to the “Scream” movies — not to mention the “Stab” movies-within-the-movies that were based on the “real” events from the “Scream” movies.

(You remember “Stab,” right? With Tori Spelling as Sidney, Jennifer Jolie as Gale, David Schwimmer as Dewey, Luke Wilson as Billy Loomis and Heather Graham as Casey Becker?)

As if there could possibly be another option, our story opens in classic, time-honored “Scream” fashion with Jenna Ortega’s high schooler Tara Carpenter answering the phone (good thing her family has a landline!) while simultaneously texting with her best friend Amber (Mikey Madison). The mechanized voice on the other end of line sounds exactly like the voice of the notorious Ghostface killer (and subsequent copycats), and Tara goes from slightly irritated to deeply annoyed to absolutely terrified, because that’s how it always goes. Like Drew Barrymore’s Casey back in 1996, it appears as if Tara isn’t going to make it to the opening titles — but Tara’s a fighter and she winds up in the hospital, clinging to life. And away we go …

We meet a new generation of teenagers living in the outwardly charming but deeply haunted town of Woodsboro, California. In addition to Tara and her overly protective BFF Amber, there’s good girl Liv McKenzie (Sonia Ammar); nice guy Wes Hicks (Dylan Minnette), whose mother is Sheriff Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), a returnee from “Scream 4,” and the twins, Chad Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding), an amiable jock who is Liv’s boyfriend, and Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown), who is obsessed with the “Stab” movies, explains to everyone they’re all basically IN a “Stab” movie, and delivers a brilliant monologue dissecting the differences between sequels and reboots and “requels.”

Sidney (Neve Campbell, left) and Gale (Courtney Cox) find themselves in danger once more.
Paramount Pictures

Melissa Barrera (“The Heights”) plays Tara’s older sister Sam, who left town under mysterious circumstances and is estranged from Tara, but now returns with her boyfriend Richie Kirsch (Jack Quaid). As the body count piles up and we learn about various characters’ connections to the past, Dewey, Gale and Sidney find themselves once again in Woodsboro and once again in danger. Time and again, “Scream” has fun with horror film tropes, whether it’s the hospital that essentially “closes” in the middle of the night, leaving an injured victim seemingly alone and possibly at the mercy of killer who has returned to finish the job; the expectations that behind every door and in every mirror, we’re going to get a “jump scare,” or certain characters saying they’re going to do what potential victims in a splatter movie never do — they’re going to get in the car and get the hell out of town. (Somehow, the filmmakers even manage to work in a spectacularly gruesome and totally unexpected nod to a certain scene in a certain Quentin Tarantino movie, and I won’t narrow it down any more than that. It’s one of the great crazy-ass moments in recent movie memory.)

We know not everyone in a “Scream” movie is going to make it out alive. We know we’re eventually going to learn the identity of the killer — but only after at least a half-dozen suspects have been identified. We know Sidney and Gale and Dewey deserve some peace and quiet all these years later — but just when they’re out, Ghostface pulls them back in. It’s a genuine kick to see Campbell, Cox and Arquette return to the franchise, and the young generation of actors now fleeing from Ghostface (or maybe one of them IS Ghostface!) all turn in splendid, funny, smart performances. This is the best “Scream” since the first “Scream.”